Elsie de Wolfe

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Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe 1901.jpg
Elsie de Wolf in The Shades of Night (1901)[1]
Born (1859-12-20)December 20, 1859?
Died July 12, 1950(1950-07-12) (aged 90)
Occupation Actress, interior decorator, author
Elsie de Wolfe, photograph from The House in Good Taste, 1913
Elsie de Wolfe in Red Cross nurse's uniform, c. 1917

Elsie de Wolfe, also known as Lady Mendl,[2] (December 20, 1859?[3][4][5] – July 12, 1950) was an American actress, interior decorator, nominal author of the influential 1913 book The House in Good Taste,[6] and a prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society. According to The New Yorker, "Interior Design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe."[7] During her married life, the press usually referred to her as Lady Mendl. She was born in New York and died in Versailles, France.


In the 18th century, interior decoration was the purview of upholsterers, (who sold fabrics and furniture), and architects, (who employed a variety of craftsmen and artisans to complete interior design schemes for clients). In the 19th century, the skills of designers such as Candace Wheeler and design firms such as Herter Brothers were well known. De Wolfe reaped publicity, and was one of the field's most famed practitioners in the early 20th century – a period that also saw an increase of interest in interior design in the popular press. Among her clients were Amy Vanderbilt, Anne Morgan, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Milbank Anderson (philanthropist) and Adelaide and Henry Clay Frick.[8] She transformed the design of wealthy homes from the dark Victorian style into designs featuring light, fresh colors and a reliance on 18th-century French furniture and reproductions.[5][9][10][11][12]

In her autobiography, de Wolfe—born Ella Anderson de Wolfe and the only daughter of a Canadian-born doctor—calls herself a "rebel in an ugly world." Speaking of herself in the third person, she says that her mother said often that she was ugly, but "just what ugly was she did not know... Now she was to know." Arriving home from school, she found that her parents had redecorated the drawing-room:

She ran [in]... and looked at the walls, which had been papered in a [William] Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a background of dull tan. Something terrible that cut like a knife came up inside her. She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs, as she beat her hands on the carpet.... she cried out, over and over: "It's so ugly! It's so ugly."[13]

Hutton Wilkinson, president of the Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, notes that of course many things that De Wolfe hated – such as "pickle and plum Morris furniture," are prized today by museums and designers; he believes that “De Wolfe simply didn’t like Victorian—the high style of her sad childhood—, and chose to banish it from her design vocabulary."[14]

A room designed by Elsie de Wolfe. Color photograph from The House in Good Taste, 1913

De Wolfe appeared with The Amateur Comedy Club in New York City as Lady Clara Seymour in "A Cup of Tea," (April 1886), and as Maude Ashley in "Sunshine," a one act comedy by Fred W. Broughton (December 1886). De Wolfe began her professional career in theatre, making her debut as an actress in Sardou's Thermidor in 1891, playing the rôle of Fabienne with Forbes-Robertson.[15] In 1894 she joined the Empire Stock Company under Charles Frohman. In 1901 she brought out The Way of the World under her own management at the Victoria Theatre, and later she toured the United States with this play.[15] On stage, she was neither a total failure nor a great success; one critic called her “the leading exponent of . . . the peculiar art of wearing good clothes well.”[16] She became interested in interior decorating as a result of staging plays, and in 1903 she left the stage to launch a career as a decorator.[17]

As "the first lady of interior decoration" and the first female Interior Designer, Elsie De Wolfe is considered by some to have invented the occupation. Through her design efforts she introduced some of the most stylish and sophisticated ideas into American homes that had been seen up to that time. Elsie's presence in the design field was very apparent. She was a woman in a nearly exclusively masculine field. Many elements aided her in becoming such an influential woman designer: her social connections in society, her notable reputation as a designer and her success in designing the interior of the house she shared with her close friend, Elisabeth Marbury, all contributed to her becoming a truly significant designer.

Elsie De Wolfe, however, was not a designer all her life, as she actually began her career as an Interior Decorator at about the age of 40. Replacing the major emphasis which Victorian style represented, she chose a more vibrant scheme, along with more comfortable furniture in the home. Her design was very feminine opposed to the highly masculine design that preceded her work. Her designs were very light with fresh colors and delicate Chinoiserie furnishings, and soft, comfortably upholstered chairs, as opposed to the Victorian design of heavy, red velvet drapes and upholstery, dark wood, and intensely patterned wallpapers. In her own words, she said, “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.” Her inspiration came from many designers and styles such as 18th century French and English furnishings. Elsie studied many aspects of the French lifestyle. Taking in the art of entertainment, food, arts, and fashion, she introduced those elements to American society. This was portrayed in her new outlook on art and fashion and also showed in her designs.[10]

In addition to being much brighter and softer, her designs were also much more practical. She eliminated the clutter that occupied the Victorian home, enabling people to entertain more guests comfortably. She introduced a variety of things, including: the cocktail party, comfortable chaises longues, faux finish treatments, animal prints, delicate writing tables, etc.

In 1905, Stanford White, the architect for The Colony Club and a longtime friend, helped de Wolfe secure the commission for its interior design. The building, located at 120 Madison Avenue, (near 30th Street), became the premier women's social club. It opened in 1907, and its interiors garnered her recognition almost over night. Instead of the heavy, masculine style of the day, Elsie used light fabric window coverings, painted the walls with pale colors, tiled the floors, and added wicker chairs. The effect centered on the illusion of an outdoor garden pavilion with a touch of femininity.[18] (The building is now occupied by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.)The success of this endeavor proved to be a turning point that launched her financially successful career.[5][19]

Over the course of the next six years, Elsie designed the interiors of many prestigious homes and clubs on both the East Coast and West Coast. She also worked on opera boxes, a dormitory, and a model home. By 1913, she had developed her business enough to take up an entire floor of offices on 5th Ave., complete with assistants, secretaries, and bookkeepers. In 1915, she received a commission by Henry Clay Frick, one of the richest men in America at the time. Previously he had lived at a chateau in Pennsylvania, while making millions monopolizing the coal industry. On his retirement, he moved to New York City, where he had his mansion constructed by Thomas Hastings in 1912-1914. Sir Charles Allom, known for his work remodeling Buckingham Palace, was hired to decorate a number of rooms on the first floor of the home; Elsie was hired to decorate the second floor, which included the sleeping quarters, among other rooms. Though it is not known exactly how it was that she secured the job with Frick, it is possibly due to her reputation as one of the best, if not the best, decorators of the time. Earning a commission for every piece of art or furniture she purchased for Frick, Elsie became a very rich woman. She continued to design interior spaces for a long list of prestigious clients, and wrote several books and articles. During World War I, she volunteered as a nurse in France, and it was not until nearly the end of her career that, at the age of 61, she married.

Marriage and family[edit]

De Wolfe's 1926 marriage to diplomat Sir Charles Mendl was page-one news in the New York Times. Shortly after her marriage, she scandalized French diplomatic society when she attended a fancy-dress ball dressed as a Moulin Rouge dancer and made her entrance turning handsprings. A guest chided her: "Elsie, it is wonderful to be able to turn handsprings at your age. But, after all, you are, you are Charlie's wife, and do you think it is in perfect taste for the wife of a diplomat to perform acrobatics in a ballroom?" [20] The marriage between de Wolfe and Mendl was platonic and one of convenience. They appeared to have married primarily for social amenities: the couple entertained together, but they kept separate homes. Ten years after their marriage, de Wolfe published her autobiography, her husband was not mentioned.[21]

The Times said that "the intended marriage comes as a great surprise to her friends," perhaps because since 1892 de Wolfe had been living openly in what many observers accepted as a lesbian relationship. As the Times put it: "When in New York she makes her home with Miss Elizabeth Marbury at 13 Sutton Place."

The daughter of a prosperous New York lawyer, Elisabeth (Bessy) Marbury, like de Wolfe, was also a career pioneer. She was one of the first theater agents. Her clients included Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. During their nearly 40 years together, Marbury was initially the main support of the couple. Dave Von Drehle speaks of "the willowy De Wolfe and the masculine Marbury... cutting a wide path through Manhattan society. Gossips called them "the Bachelors."[17][22][23][24][25] Expecting nothing to change in their relationship due to her marriage to Mendl, de Wolfe remained Marbury's lover until the latter's death in 1933.[26]


In 1926 the New York Times described de Wolfe as "one of the most widely known women in New York social life," and in 1935 as "prominent in Paris society." Her morning exercises were famous. In her 1935 autobiography, de Wolfe wrote that her daily regimen at age 70 included yoga, standing on her head, and walking on her hands.[27]

In 1935, Paris experts named her the best-dressed woman in the world, noting that she wore what suited her best, regardless of fashion.[28]

De Wolfe had embroidered taffeta pillows bearing the motto "Never complain, never explain."[29] On first seeing the Parthenon, De Wolfe exclaimed "It's beige—my color!"[5][30][31] At her house in France, the Villa Trianon, she had a dog cemetery in which each tombstone read, "The one I loved the best."[32]

Elsie de Wolfe was also able to transform interiors in the 19th century from Victorian style to a fresh new look. Most Victorian style interiors featured dark colors and not much light. de Wolfe used a new approach that featured light colors. She appreciated simplicity, and was involved with light and fresh colors. She did not focus on what could merely fit into a room; rather, what was appropriate to the room. The appreciation for this grew through her practices with yoga. The simplicity she exerted in her daily life reflected in her designs. She tried to unify a space, using all the aspects of the room, tying-in the upholstery to the paint, to the curtains, etc.

American Decades opines that "she was probably the first woman to dye her hair blue, to perform handstands to impress her friends, and to cover eighteenth-century footstools in leopard-skin chintzes."[33]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In Irving Berlin's Harlem On My Mind the singer professes to prefer the "low-down" Harlem ambience to her "high-falutin' flat that Lady Mendl designed."[34]
  • One of the color schemes she popularized was the inspiration for the Cole Porter song "That Black and White Baby of Mine" (whose lyrics include the lines "All she thinks black and white/She even drinks black and white").[citation needed]
  • In Cole Porter's lyric about modern scandals, "Anything Goes," he observes, "When you hear that Lady Mendl, standing up/Now turns a handspring landing up-/On her toes/Anything goes!"[35]
  • Cole Porter also refers to her in the song Farming from the musical Let's Face It . The lyric describes the celebrities who have gone back to nature: Kit Cornell is shelling peas, Lady Mendl's climbing trees, Farming is so charming they all say!"


  • The House in Good Taste. New York: The Century Company. 1913. 
  • Hutton Wilkinson, ed. (2004) [1913]. The House in Good Taste. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2631-7.  (Reprint)
  • Elsie de Wolfe's Recipes for Successful Dining. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. 1934. 
  • After All. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1935. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Shades of Night at the Internet Broadway Database
  2. ^ "Lady Mendl" was frequently used by the press during her married life. "Elsie de Wolfe" is the name that appears as author of her published books; modern biographers usually use this form of the name. "Lady Elsie de Wolfe Mendl" is mentioned by The Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, volume 20, Gale Group, 2000. "Ella Anderson de Wolfe" is given by the Encyclopædia Britannica as her name "in full," adding "married name 'Lady Mendl'"[1]
  3. ^ Ella A. DeWolfe, age 1, is found on the 1860 United States Federal Census
  4. ^ "LADY MENDL DIES IN FRANCE AT 84," July 13, 1950, p. 25. (Birth, death dates: with regard to her date of birth, the Times says she "rarely discussed her childhood" and "differences of opinion existed... one source said she was born on Dec. 20, 1865 on West Twenty-Second Street, a daughter of Stephen de Wolfe, a physician of Wolfville, N. S., and Georgiana (Copeland) de Wolfe of Aberdeen, Scotland.")
  5. ^ a b c d Flanner, Janet (1938) "Handsprings Across the Sea," The New Yorker, 1938-01-15, as posted online [2]: "Twenty years after [1904] she had made a million and an international name by inventing the new fashionable profession of interior decorating.
  6. ^ Ghostwritten by Ruby Ross Wood: Abercrombie, Stanley (1999), "100 Years That Changed Our World," Interior Design 12/1/1999, as presented online [3] In 1913... Elsie de Wolfe publishes her book The House in Good Taste, based on previously published articles ghost written for her by Ruby Ross Wood. In 1914, Ruby Ross Wood and Rayne Adams write The Honest House.
  7. ^ Goodyear, Dana (September 14, 2009). "Lady of the House". The New Yorker: 60–65. 
  8. ^ http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1026/is_3_168/ai_n15661727
  9. ^ Webster, Katherine (2001) "A Decorator’s Life: Elsie De Wolfe 1865 – 1950", Canadian Interior Design website [4]( "the first lady of interior decoration," "without question the first woman to create an occupation as designer")
  10. ^ a b Webster, Katherine (2001) "A Decorator’s Life: Elsie de Wolfe 1865 – 1950", Canadian Interior Design website [5]
  11. ^ Sparke, Penny; Mitchell Owens; Elsie De Wolfe (2005). Elsie De Wolfe: The Birth of Modern Interior Decoration. Acanthus Press. ISBN 0-926494-27-9. : "Considered the mother of interior decoration" is from a synopsis of this book, attributed to "Book News, Inc., Portland, OR," at bookseller's website [6].
  12. ^ Cummings, Mary (2004), "The Interior Realm of the Hamptons."[7]("Stretching things...")
  13. ^ De Wolfe, Elsie (1935). After All. New York and London: Harper and Brothers. ; (Reaction to Morris wallpaper, p. 2-3)
  14. ^ Wilkinson, Hutton (2004) note in de Wolfe, Elsie (2004) [1913]. Hutton Wilkinson, ed. The House in Good Taste. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2631-7. , p. 225
  15. ^ a b New International Encyclopedia[citation needed]
  16. ^ Franklin, Ruth (2004) "A Life in Good Taste: The fashions and follies of Elsie de Wolfe," The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 2004.[8]
  17. ^ a b "Elsie de Wolfe to Wed Sir Charles Mendl; Their Wedding Set for Tomorrow in Paris," The New York Times, March 9, 1926, p. 1: early career as actress, "most widely known women in New York social life."
  18. ^ Munhall, Edward. "Elsie de Wolf: The American pioneer who vanquished Victorian gloom". Architectural Digest. Retrieved 27 October 2011. 
  19. ^ Gray, Christopher (2003), "Streetscapes/Former Colony Club at 120 Madison Avenue; Stanford White Design, Elsie de Wolfe Interior," The New York Times, September 28, 2003 [9]
  20. ^ De Wolfe, Elsie (1935). After All. New York: Harper and Brothers. 
  21. ^ Franklin, Ruth (September 27, 2004), "A Life in Good Taste: The Fashions and Follies of Elsie de Wolfe." The New Yorker [10]. ("according to Hilda West, de Wolfe’s longtime housekeeper, de Wolfe had simply decided she wanted a title (after the marriage, she was known as Lady Mendl). Whatever the explanation, the marriage appears to have been primarily for social convenience: the couple entertained together, but they kept separate homes. When, ten years later, de Wolfe published her autobiography, her husband hardly merited a mention.")
  22. ^ Aldrich,, Robert; Garry Wotherspoon (2002). Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian History. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15983-0.  p. 494 ("famous lesbian relationship... openly received...")
  23. ^ Bunyan, Patrick (2002). All Around the Town. Fordham Univ Press. ISBN 0-8232-1941-0.  p. 204 ("Miss Marbury... was the lesbian lover of Elsie De Wolfe...")
  24. ^ Von Drehle, Dave (2003). Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 0-87113-874-3.  "willowy Dewolfe and the masculine Marbury..." p. 72
  25. ^ Curtis, Charlotte (1982), "A Decorative Collaboration." The New York Times [11]. ("Miss Marbury was born to a fortune she herself enhanced. Her attachment to Miss de Wolfe lasted more than 40 years, during which time Miss Marbury paid more than half of their shared household expenses.")
  26. ^ Schnake,, Robert A.; Kim Marra (1998). Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-09681-8.  p. 124 ("Mendl...assured the enraged Marbury that he had no intentions of replacing her in de Wolfe's affections, and that marriage was purely one of convenience, and that perhaps as a business woman she could understand the social and commercial value of such a contract. A few weeks later, de Wolfe traveled to New York for a personal reconciliation with her long time companion, and the two continued their post-war pattern...until Marbury's death in 1933. ")
  27. ^ De Wolfe, After All, p. 256: "I have a regular exercise routine... founded on the Yogi method... introduced to me by Anne Vanderbilt and her daughter, Princess Murat... I stand on my head... I can turn cart wheels. Or I walk upside-down on my hands." Costume-ball incident, p. 258. Photographs of her sitting in a twisted Yoga position and standing on her head, between pp. 142–3
  28. ^ "PARIS EXPERTS PICK 20 'BEST DRESSED'; Ten American Women Among Those Considered Leaders in Smart Attire. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt One. Ina Claire, Constance Bennett, and Kay Francis Others—Duchess of Kent Among Americans." The New York Times, November 26, 1935, p. 27. Two days later, November 28th, p. 33, the Times reported that Lady Mendl, just arriving in Paris, said she did not agree and that Mrs. Reginald Fellowes (a.k.a. Daisy Fellowes) of Paris and London was the best-dressed woman anywhere. The Times reported Lady Mendl as "scoffing at the report that she spent $40,000 a year for clothes. She spends around $10,000 annually—certainly no more than $15,000—she declared." $10,000 in 1935 dollars is roughly equivalent to $138,000 in 2005 dollars [12]
  29. ^ Hadley, Albert (2004): Foreword to de Wolfe, Elsie (2004) [1913]. Hutton Wilkinson, ed. The House in Good Taste. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2631-7. , p. xv
  30. ^ Wilkinson, Hutton (2004), note in de Wolfe, Elsie (2004) [1913]. Hutton Wilkinson, ed. The House in Good Taste. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2631-7. , p. 229 ("Beige, my color!")
  31. ^ Rich, B. Ruby (2001): "Frames of mind: Dykes take on decor heaven." The Advocate. Los Angeles: Aug 14, 2001., Iss. 843/4; p. 64 ("It's beige—my color!")
  32. ^ Wilkinson, Hutton (2004) note in De Wolfe, Elsie (2004) [1913]. Hutton Wilkinson, ed. The House in Good Taste. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2631-7. , p. 232 ("The one I loved the best")
  33. ^ "Elsie de Wolfe", American Decades, Gale Research, 1998
  34. ^ Porter lyric: Irving Berlin: A Hundred Years, Columbia CGK 40039, track 8: "Harlem On My Mind," sung by Ethel Waters: 1:44
  35. ^ Musicals! 15 Hit Songs from Classic Musical Shows, Angel CDC 0777 7 54835 2 9, track 8, "Anything Goes," 4:35

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